Friday, December 16, 2011

What Does Forgiveness Look Like?

I've asked the non-verbal part of my brain to tell me what it knows about forgiveness.

You may have noticed that I am highly verbal. I remember, as a child, narrating my life out loud. ("She walked across the street." I remember exactly what street I was crossing when I realized I was narrating.) My tendency toward the verbal is the reason I'm a writer. As soon as I've written it down, I know what I'm thinking. Before that, it's a bit vague.

On the other hand, if I put words around something, it becomes trapped. For instance, if I call something "unforgivable," it's hard to open to other possibilities.

My first image of forgiveness was light flowing through an open heart.

I wasn't happy, however, with the painting.  I hardly ever like my paintings when they include known symbols or are representational. (In addition, something about this yellow does not say "light" to me…)

My next try

 was more successful. It's prettier and it taught me more. This painting tells me that forgiveness is a softening, an opening. Sharp bits still exists, but now they give energy to the whole instead of making it hard and inflexible. Thinking about forgiveness as a process produced this:

On the left, the darknesses of life are pressing in on the light. What is unforgiven causes shadow and constriction.

In the center, forgiveness begins. The darkness is breaking up. Light is spreading, but things are chaotic and unsettled.

On the right is forgiveness. Light shines throughout. Though darkness is present, it has become a part of the whole. 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:5)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Forgiveness—Early Observations and Experiments

My kind promise is "to forgive with wild abandon." I chose the phrase because I want to forgive with extreme generosity. I don't imagine that I will forgive instantly and effortlessly, but I want to forgive frequently. I want the time between offense and forgiveness to get shorter and shorter, so that the cost to my soul and psyche gets smaller.

We forgive to return ourselves to wholeness.

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” -- Lewis B. Smedes

How is forgiveness showing up in my life right now?
  • A friend of mine was describing a situation with her stepdaughter.  The younger woman had arrived from out of town for a visit with a companion she was specifically asked not to bring at an hour much later than she was expected. She was sent to a hotel, rather than being invited home.  Hearing the story, I (silently) had many judgments about my friend’s actions which I broadened to her character in general.
  • A man working for me did not do what I asked him to do. He made an effort, but the results were not what I had in mind. I told my husband how dissatisfied I was and what an idiot the worker was not to have understood how to do it right. Then I realized that the man was not (as I thought) out of the house and may have overheard my harsh words.
  • After both of these situations, I felt terrible for my own tendencies to judge. In fact, the idea that you are continuing to read words written by such a flawed character is astounding.
Simple vignettes, but they are rich with lessons about forgiveness.
  • Expectations:  I have ideas about How Things are Supposed to Go. My friend should have responded to the situation as I would. My employee should have understood what I had in mind immediately.
  • Judgments of others: if they don't do it my way, they're wrong. Not only that, but their wrongness reflects defects in character.
  • Judgments of myself: to take offense means I am A Bad Person, as does having judgments about the situation or the other person. Saying anything about the offense and/or at the judgments compounds my Badness.

How could it work differently?

  • Would it be possible to meet life without expectations? I'm not sure…
  • Having judgments seems like a human activity. I don't think I will stop having judgments. I can become more aware of the judgments as they arise.
  • Once I notice a judgment, I can decide what to do about it, including whether or not to say something. In the first example above, it doesn't matter that I would've handled things differently. In the second example, perhaps I needed to better explain the results I wanted.
Experiments—try thinking:
  • I'm open to this moment. The next moment also will be a surprise.
  • Whoa, look at all those judgments I'm having!  I'm good at being human.
  • She did it differently; that doesn't mean she did it wrong.

Friday, December 2, 2011

It's all in how you look at it…

Art Every Day Month is complete.

"Which way is up?" my husband asked on Day 30. He went on to explain that if he looks at the painting one way people are on their knees in Islamic prayer. If he looks at it another way,  the crowd is looking up.  I was just painting colors and had no idea there were people involved.

Several times this month, I have admonished myself not to use so much water. Also on Day 30, puddles on the paperwork threatened to spill over onto the table .  I dabbed a puddle with a tissue and like the textural result.  The painting became about textures... An emergency response became a goal.

Art reminds me to be in the moment and that there are no mistakes .

 Day 26

 Day 27

 Day 28

 Day 29

 Day 30

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Visual Journaling (Art Every Day Month, week 4)

Art Every Day Month is drawing to a close and I find myself thinking – as I did last year at this time – that I should extend this habit as a kind of visual journal. I have no illusions that I am a Great Artiste. I only know that painting delights and calms me.

Art wouldn't, for me, work as a diay. A year from now I probably won't know that on day 20 I had a migraine.  Art becomes a sort of slow-cooked meditation for me. I lose myself when I'm painting and, when I review a week's worth of paintings, I can accept them without judging. That's a good process for someone like me who often mistakenly pushes against what is.

Day 19

Day 20

Day 21

Day 22

Day 23

Date 24

Date 25

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Self Reflection (Art Every Day Month, week 3)

Several days this week I have had to convince myself to make art. The allure of deciding I was too tired or too sick (I have a cold) was strong. Sometimes painting gave me comfort and energy. Sometimes it was a slog.
Looking back, I see a reflection of my attitude and my energy each day. Art is a mirror.

Day 11

Day 12

Day 13

Day 14

Day 15

Day 16

Day 17
Day 18

Friday, November 11, 2011

Without a Plan (Art Every Day Month, week 2)

If I approach the page humbly and let colors and movement lead me, I like what happens.

If I have a vision and try to create it, the difference between thought and reality frustrates me. Initially, I don't like the results. Over time, they grow on me.

Hmmm, are there life lessons here?

 Day 5 

(malfunctioning marker )

Day  6

Day 7

Day  8

Day 9

Day 10

 Quiz: Which two of the above were planned? ( leave a comment below )

Friday, November 4, 2011

Learning from my Left Brain (Art Every Day Month, Week 1)

I have committed, once again, to Art Every Day Month. As before, I need to decide what that's going to mean to me. What can my body do this year, this day?

I have my paints and paper out on the table where they are easy to reach.  I approach with no expectations, except to put paint on brush on paper. I am learning already.  Here are some lessons:

Day 1: hey, I can do this!

Day 2:  I am happier with abstracts and than trying to do something representational... Even if it's impressionistic. I
Day 3:   Took my daughter's advice to paint a teddy bear . imimmediately disliked, but it's growing on me . I'm not sure what thlesson is yet…  
Day 4:  color makes me happy!

I am so wordy.  This month I get to be quiet and listen...

Friday, October 28, 2011

Peaceful and at Ease

May I feel peaceful and at ease.

You might think that repeating this phrase as part of meditation would be easy for me.

If I'm in the right mood, just saying the words makes my body relax the tension it's holding and settle.

If I'm in the wrong mood, however, a dry-voiced and smarmy monster begins to explain that ease is not possible for someone as disabled as I.

When I first began using a wheelchair, I comforted myself with the semi-affirmation that "Nothing is easy. Everything is a blessing." It was designed to respond to the many frustrations I felt whenever I tried to take action.

As my disease progresses, things I used to do easily become difficult. That's the truth.

So where does ease come in?

I resist the idea that it's a matter of attitude. My left hand is pretty floppy today. Manipulating the mouse takes effort. I have to move my hand consciously and think about where I am aiming the cursor. During good times, I can think about where I want the cursor to go in my hand moves it there without trouble. My mentally assuring myself that moving the mouse is easy doesn't make it so.

My daughter has been visiting a hypnotherapist to help her with math and test anxiety. I am in the sessions, listening to the therapist reassure Alexis that she can do math without upset, that it comes easily for her. She advised Alexis to say, "math is a challenge for me" instead of "math is hard." She explained that the subconscious mind believes what the conscious mind says.

I'm willing to play along, so I will stop advising myself that everything is difficult. I can believe that "many things are a challenge; there is blessing in everything."

I chose the word "feel" to be part of this phrase because I find it difficult to consider ease an absolute.

Much of my life is a challenge, but I don't have to feel distressed about it. If, as I mentioned last week, I am living with joy, that means I am turning away from disturbance.

I can feel at ease amidst challenge.

Peace is easier for me. A child of the sixties, I have always seen peace as an unquestionable asset – not worth fighting for, but worth dying for… worth living for.
Interviewer: Do you know what peace is?
Four-year-old girl: A wagon – a purple wagon that someone pulls.
.................Purple Wagon
That wise girl teaches me that peace and ease are not the opposite of effort.   If the wagon is purple there is joy in the pulling.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Living with Joy

The third phrase of the meditation I am learning has evolved into, "May I live with joy."

The older I get, the more I realize I am a struggler. I don't allow things to come easily. I argue with myself over ideas and only after a good argument do I find acceptance. (Maybe I should have been a lawyer…)

The third meditation phrase my teacher presented was, "May I be happy."

Simple enough, eh?

Not in this mind! As soon as I was given permission to change the phrases so they resonated more strongly with me, I went to work on that third phrase.

At the time, I was in the middle of reading "The Happiness Project." If I were willing to accept Gretchen Rubin's I'll-know-it-when-I-feel-it definition, I might've been able to live with repeating "May I be happy."

No. Happiness feels to me like a state of being that relies on outward circumstances being Just Right. Can I be happy and in pain? Not in the way I think of happiness.

Joy, on the other hand, is a deep attitude that can last for moments or a lifetime, irrespective of outward circumstances. I can feel joy and pain simultaneously. (Childbearing springs to mind. Come to think of it, so does child rearing!  )

One of my options was to use "May I feel joy." That works for me, but saying, "May I live with joy" seems more of a commitment. I am choosing joy as my internal constant.

Like life itself, I will have to choose it again and again, each day, each hour, each moment.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Gaining Strength (for what?)

The second phrase in the metta meditation I am learning is "May I be strong."

Since I am working the metta phrases into my stretching routine, I do have a bit of monster-mind feedback. I lean forward and stretch my left arm out thinking "May I be safe." Then I lean forward and stretch my right arm out thinking "May I be strong." My right arm is much weaker than my left. Sometimes I can barely straighten it. The monsters are quick to shriek "you're not strong. Look how weak your arm is!"

An internal argument follows about mental/emotional/spiritual strength versus physical strength. (The fact that all these voices are arguing is evidence of some kind of goofy strength.)

The definition of strength uses the word "power" liberally: "having, showing, or able to exert great bodily or muscular power… Mentally powerful or vigorous… Able, competent or powerful in a specific field… Great moral power…"

If I was working with the phrase "May I be powerful," the monsters would really be hollering! [My monsters have no doubt that power corrupts…]

The definition of power, though is "ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something."

Like everyone, my strength is limited. Like everyone, I can increase my strength by practicing. Just as an occupational therapist has given me exercises I can do to maintain what I can of the strength in my arms, my meditation exercises will help maintain (maybe even increase) my emotional and spiritual strength.

19th-century thinker Henry David Thoreau wrote, 'It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?'"

It is wonderful that I am encouraging myself to be strong. The question is: strong enough to what? The answer lies in the rest of the metta phrases. My version is:
May I be safe.
May I be strong.
May I live with joy.
May I feel peaceful and at ease.

I am practicing to develop the strength to believe those phrases and embody them with every breath.

[Intrigued by this metta practice? Follow the work of Janice Lynne Lundy.]

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Feeling Safe

When I first started taking time in the middle of my work day to stretch my body, I found it difficult. I am not talking about taking a lot of time to practice a yoga pose.  I downloaded a software program called Big Stretch Reminder that pops open a (customizable) window advising me to move around. (Mine says "breathe, stretch and smile.") Many times, I would just click okay and close the window. After some practice, I realize thinking "it's safe to take this time" helped me do the stretches.

Safe? Really? I work for a human-friendly nonprofit organization. My bosses frequently remind us to take lunch away from our desks, stay home when we are sick and take time to connect with our families. They are certainly not going to complain about my two-minute stretch breaks.

I am learning a new form of metta meditation. The first phrase in the quartet we are using is "May I be safe." My monsters rebelled against this idea. "There is no safety in this modern world," they shriek. "There are wars, terrorism, people who intend to do harm. Your body itself is attacking you. That's what auto immune diseases mean. Prove to us you deserve to be safe!"

Now the monsters are getting to their core message: proving, proving, proving. It is not enough to be. They want activity designed to gain approval.

mid-14c., "to attest (something) with authority," from O.Fr. aprover (Fr. approuver), from L. approbare "to assent to as good, regard as good," from ad- "to" + probare "to try, test something (to find if it is good)," from probus "honest, genuine"
Ironic that I've taken an idea rooted in honesty and genuineness and made it mean trying to be better than I am. I am always busy proving myself and never rest from that effort.

I need to realize that who I am is enough. Not who I can be, not what I can accomplish, but who I am.

"We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience." --Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Book Response: The Happiness Project

A week ago, I finished reading The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Ruben.  It was recommended to me months ago by a happy woman I met at one of my speaking gigs.
I confess there is a part of me that thinks that happiness is not cool.  As a sophisticated thinker in the modern age, I should understand that happiness is an unrealistic, naïve response to life .
The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings,
and you know how happy kings are.
-James Thurber.
For her happiness project, Gretchen Rubin studied happiness and created a list of personal commandments and a resolution chart. Each month for a year, she addressed a theme (vitality, marriage, work, parenthood  etc.) and acted on resolutions related to it .

In her parenthood month, for example,  her resolutions were
  • sing in the morning
  • acknowledge the reality of people's feelings
  •  be a treasure house of happy memories
  •  make time for projects
She followed her progress in a blog and the book includes comments on the blog from readers who were participating in their own happiness projects.

This is the second book I've read this year in the new genre of "method journalism," where the writer takes a year to do something and documents her process (Eat, Pray, LoveJulie and Julia).

As someone who loves process, I find it a delightful genre. I'm also cheered that it often uses a blend of old and new publishing technologies; blogs informing books engendering websites.

The Happiness Project also satisfies the obsessive-compulsive in me. Its reliance on charts and checkmarks is comforting. Ruben identifies her Resolution Chart as perhaps the most powerful tool of her happiness project.

The project is inspirational. The book is fun and engaging.

Along the Way, Rubin began a Happiness Project Toolbox website, which is an online community containing resources and stories of people embarked on their own happiness projects. It has become a Movement!

I'm not planning to create my own happiness project, but the process has added another blossom to my "what's next" thinking bouquet.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Comfortable and Precarious

She caught her breath one day
and realized the life she had expected –
one of progress and accomplishment –
was not the one encircling her.

She moved gently forward,
hands outstretched
patting the uncertainties
like a woman moving into
a darkened bedroom.
The space felt, at once,
comfortable and precarious.

She made a promise then
to kindle a light if she could
or forgive herself  if she couldn't
and to explore her surroundings
    its soft soothings and
    its sharp surprises
until she recognized it
as her own.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Lessons from a Bur Cucumber Vine

I was delighted today (Delight of the Day, in fact) to rediscover the bur cucumbers along my walking path. I noticed them last fall but was afraid they had been uprooted over the summer. My path takes me along high-voltage wires and this summer the power company did a sweep, chopping down saplings and trees under the wires. Since their hosts are gone, I thought the bur cucumbers might not have survived. They've been there all along, of course, but I didn't recognize them until the pods emerged. ("The pod things are back!")

I confess I brought a sample home so I could identify and learn about them. Now, as I write, two cucumbers sit beside me, resting against their vine and leaves, tendrils curling like party streamers.

here is a photo of bur cucumbers in the wild, taken by Judy at Lilac Gate:

I love the plump spikiness of them and the tight spirals of their tendrils.

“These fascinating fruits go out with a bang, having an explosive dehiscence mechanism. Each fruit contains four seeds, which develop under increasing hydrostatic pressure. If birds or small mammals don’t interfere with the fruit before it fully ripens, the fruit will expel its seeds at a speed of 11.5 m/s!”
Later in the year, the vine will support cucumber skeletons, like the one captured by Marianne Friers at Northview Diary:
That is the state in which I first noticed them, hanging in the bush like pale yellow lanterns, speaking of beauty in structure.

I shouldn't have worried about the plant's survival. "The only way to remove it permanently," says a writer at Ramshackle Solid of the genus, "is to dig up the root which can weigh up to 100 lbs."

So what lessons am I learning/remembering today from the bur cucumber vine?

  •  It's fun to learn. After years of ignorance, I now know this plant's name (I decided not to go for scientific version) and more about it. Before I admired it from afar, but now we are friends.
  • Root well.  The luxuriant growth of the vine…all those leaves collecting sunlight…must be directing nutrients to the root. Strong roots mean the plant can endure much, even vigilant power company employees.
  • If a source of support disappears, find another. The saplings on which I first noticed the vine are gone. It has exuberantly climbed bushes, the power line metal structure and other trees.
  • Hang on tight.  Those tightly-spiraled tendrils make for a good grip.
  • Protect yourself.  The spikes don't bother me when I touch them with my hands, but they are sharp to my lips. The fruits are poisonous, so eating them is not a good idea anyway, but Native Americans use them for medicinal purposes.
  • Give with enthusiasm. 11.5 m/s? That's effusive!
  • Dare to be a nuisance; go wild! Once I noticed it, now I realize it's everywhere. One of the descriptions I read describes it as "a nuisance like kudzu." When you seek support and hang on tight, some people will consider you a nuisance. Fie on them.
  • Degrade gracefully. Having released their seeds, the pods open to the air and let light shine through their structure. The reason I'm noticing such things in the plant world is, of course, because it's my own next developmental stage.
 Thank you, teacher.
You didn't come into this world.  You came out of it, like a wave from the ocean. --Alan Watts

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's a Wonderful Life

I ended a recent newsletter with the declaration that "Adventure is moving into the unknown believing wonderful things will happen. I need to rediscover life as adventure."

I was immediately humbled by a post by John Ptacek on the Fight Like a Girl Club website that "Surrender meant discarding the idea that life is always supposed to be wonderful; it’s just supposed to be life."

"Is believing wonderful things a naïve and ridiculous approach?" I asked myself. Speaking of wonder to "cancer and disease warriors" might be unwelcome.

I thought about the word "wonderful" and its root:

verb (used without object)
  1. to think or speculate curiously: to wonder about the origin of the solar system.
  2. to be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel (often followed by at ): He wondered at her composure in such a crisis.
  3. to doubt: I wonder if she'll really get here.
Wonderful –Full of wonder: full of curiosity, admiration, amazement, awe, doubt.

A couple days after writing the newsletter I went to our local Renaissance Festival, a good place for an adventure. We enjoyed laughing at our favorite acts, watching the dancers, listening to music, admiring the people… It was wonderful. We did not enjoy the dust, the uneven ground, the crowds... It was wonderful.

Wonder is a word that encompasses bright and dark. Adventure is like that too. It doesn't force things to be positive or negative; it allows for ambiguity. It allows for life.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Life: there is no app for that…

My colleagues are excited because there is a new app for finding child care in Kentucky. A new item on my paid work to do list is to figure out how we would do something similar for Minnesota. It would be possible to build a mobile website with almost identical functionality, but that wouldn't have the newsworthiness…the packaging...the glamour of an app.

We look for others to simplify our choices, gather things together and give us step-by-step instructions. It's easier that way, but is it better?

About ten days ago I was ambushed by a head cold. My sweetly regulated life went out the window while I spent time with the Kleenex box. No work. No exercising. No grocery shopping. All my habits…good and bad…went out the window.

I could tell I was getting better when I started noticing how dirty the floors were, when I started feeling guilty about what wasn't getting done. Guilt as a sign of health...sheesh!

The experience was, however, a good reminder of how life works:
  • life is full of the unexpected
  • life is frequently messy
  • life includes complicated choices
  • life comes at us in little pieces…we can choose to find wholeness
  • instructions may be helpful, but are never complete or sufficiently customized
There is, in short, no app for living.  Using apps (or their old-fashioned equivalents: kits, how-to books, other people's advice)  may make specific tasks easier but may rob us of rich experience.

Making our own choices, finding our own way, living our own lives we move into deep, authentic being.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Small Joy of the Week

A few weeks ago I was out of the office and returned to find a note on my desk from a coworker: "I borrowed your computer."  My keyboard, which has been grubby and disgusting since I started work there five years ago, had been cleaned. I have, over the years, tried to clean the keyboard with no success. Now it is sparkling white. (Cube neighbors tell me she used hand sanitizer to clean the keyboard. Does that make sense?)

The clean keyboard is wonderful. Every time I see it, I rejoice. That feeling may wear off someday, but it hasn't so far. (Thank you, Cory, for changing my life!)

I have a practice I call Delight of the Day. It is simply to notice one thing each day that delights me. Watching for that one thing causes me to do what psychologists call "positive scanning."  It causes me to practice the twelve-step slogan "look for the good."

I'm going to add to that practice one called Small Joy of the Week. It is to change one object or habit in a way that improves my life. For instance, this week I'm going to clean the keyboard on my home computer AND (I'm going for two) I'm going to give myself permission to use the guest towel in the bathroom when I dry my hands instead of the harder-to-reach bath towel.  Those are small changes, but I think they may have a significant impact on my mood.

[Addendum to my last blog post: I understand that Japanese beetle damage does not hurt the tree itself. It just changes the appearance of the leaves.]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Beauty in Structure

Trees are my teachers.

This morning I realized that the trees in our neighborhood are not, as I first thought, turning to their fall colors early.Rather, they are being eaten by Japanese Beetles. The beetles start eating at the top of the tree and work their way down. From a distance, it looks like this:
 photo at laTURF

If you look closely at the leaves, the beetles have "skeletonized" them, removing the pulpy areas and leaving the fibrous ones.
photo by Rachel Wetzler. A Bit of Yellow… Beautiful quilts!

So there I am, simultaneously marveling at the beauty of these lace-like leaves and sorrowing over the health of the trees.

I am left with the determination to strengthen and beautify my own underlying structure.

Friday, August 5, 2011

I have been mulling over this feeling of being stuck I've had recently. The good news is that I feel like what Havi Brooks calls a "tiny sweet thing" is being born. The bad news is that stuck is an uncomfortable feeling. I have a (possibly unhealthy) attachment to productivity and progress and stuck is neither of those.

I ride a paratransit bus two days a week.  This bus picks me up at home and takes me to work. In between those two points it goes anywhere on the east side of the Metro area, picking up and dropping off other people. Yesterday, there was a woman on the bus who was pretty agitated about how far from either of her two end points the bus was taking her. I remember having the same concerns when I was a new "normal" bus rider. I would clutch the printed bus route in my hand. Every time I started to lose faith, I would check the route and learn that the bus was on its way to its target. The paratransit bus does not have a published route. Each day it goes different places. I have to trust that I will end up at my destination. As I am riding I can be worried about what's going on or I can trust that other people have the route in hand. The choice is mine.

It occurred to me yesterday that I need to be as relaxed about my stuckness as I am about my bus ride. This is part of the journey. It's not where I would have chosen to go but it may, in the end, get me where I need to go. It's all about trust.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dog Days and my Sorry-Self Monster

It has been ridiculously hot for several weeks in Minnesota. Our recent vacation to a cabin in Wisconsin was cut short because all we could do was sit inside with the air conditioner on and watch the condensation on the windows.  (Okay, I polished off some schlocky mysteries, but that wasn't what I had in mind for the woods.)

Multiple sclerosis is infamous flaring up in the heat. Doctors used to diagnose MS by putting people in hot tubs of water ." If we had to fish you out," I heard Dr. Randall Schapiro say, "that meant you had MS ."

When the weather is hot and I try to move , I discover I can't. It's as if a layer of cement has formed around me while I sit.

Our neighbor took his dog out for a walk .  They were heading down the sidewalk toward their front door when the dog , deciding  she had had enough, flopped down in the grass . The owner smiled indulgently at the dog and let her lie. After a couple of minutes, he tugged on the dog's leash, urging her toward the door. The dog didn't move. The owner tugged harder. The dog raised her head, looked at the owner, and then put her head back in the grass. The owner bent over, picked up the dog and carried her inside. I mentally applauded the dog for using animal wisdom to understand this was a day for lying in the grass.

Shut inside last winter by cold and snow, I dreamed of summer trips to nearby parks. I thought I could breathe nature into my soul this summer so that I could make it through winter months of being shut inside. So far, it's not working. Too hot. Too hard to breathe.

If I want to go beyond wheelchair range, I have to plan my trip three days in advance because of paratransit rules. Disability requires advance planning. Too inconvenient.

At first, my Sorry-Self Monster made a case for how sad it is that I cannot, like a dog, decide on impulse to lie in the grass.  My first instinct is to tell the monster to stop being such a wuss. This will make it wail louder. Not a useful response on my part.

What can I do instead?

First of all, pat the poor monster on the shoulder and give it a hug. Honestly, this is not easy. Healthy people go off to the beach or the woods or Machu Picchu on a whim. (Okay, maybe not that last one…) My point is that space must be made for those feelings of hurt and anger. The monster has a right to its feelings.

What is at the core of this fantasy? I envision myself living it: a park because that makes it accessible. Trees and quiet. Greenness and critters to watch. Extra points if I haven't been there before.

I came close last week when I went to Carver Lake. It's within wheelchair distance and met all the requirements except for the quiet. Because it's a city park and it was a Saturday, there were too many engine noises and a bit of human hubhub. If I had gone earlier in the morning I would have gotten everything but the extra points.

Short-term plan: return to Carver Lake early on a weekday morning. (I'll be late to work, but it will help my mental health so much I will be more productive when I get to my desk.)

Thinking about the big picture, I know I am nourished by nature and the arts. The sensible thing to do (after all, I have a Sensible Monster too) would be to do arts-related things in the winter and nature-related things in the summer. While my soul requires constant care and feeding, the Big Things don't have to happen that often.

If I make a Fill-the-bucket date once a month, I bet that would keep me happy.

Long-term plan:  each month, plan a Fill-the-bucket outing for the next month, taking likely weather into account. (I just did some surfing about nature centers near me to which I could get paratransit or rides.) Since it's near the end of the month, I will plan now for August.

(I am pleased to see that most Wikipedia dog days dates are over by late August. I am ready for some cool fall air! )

Friday, July 15, 2011

Monitoring my pulse

I am in the middle of reading The Power of Full Engagement. It may be a life-changing book for me. Authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz normally work with world-class athletes and high-powered business people, but I suspect their ideas may be even more powerful for someone like me who lives with chronic illness.

"To maintain a powerful pulse in our lives," they say,  "we must learn how to rhythmically spend and renew energy."

Last week, I emerged from a "stuck place" to a few days of fun and energetic visioning about what's next for me.   Yesterday, I started feeling like a worn-out dishrag.  I have noticed – and resisted – this rhythm before.  I want to be doing-doing-doing,  creating-creating-creating.  I love those straight line upward-sloping  graphs.

That is not my life.  Maybe it's not anybody's life. 

Life has a pulse.  Inhale. Exhale. Push. Relax.

Often, for me, days of optimism and energy are followed by days with migraine, where I sit using the television to distract myself from the pain.

I noticed after my written complaint session of 10 days ago that I had an immediate surge of energy. What other activities, I wondered, have such immed palpable effects on me?

Thus far, I have just been observing the rise and fall of energy across the day, affected by water and food intake, affected by movement, affected by weather.  The idea of learning to manage my energy by creating new spending and recovery habits is exciting.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Stuck Places...Waiting for What's Next

I haven't written a blog entry since June 17. It feels like forever and just yesterday. At first, it seemed about "circumstances beyond my control." My computer went belly up two weeks in a row. My workplace became crazy-busy preparing for a possible state government shutdown (we are partially funded by the state). I was invited to preach and was writing a new sermon (A Message from the Earlobe [PDF])...intentions were good, but follow through was poor.

As the pressure receded, however, I found myself unsure of what to write about. I surfed the web for ideas, but everything seemed slightly wrong. I realized that I was Not Writing. For me, that's a symptom of declining mental health.

On Wednesday, I wrote a journal entry listing everything that has been acting as a stressor in my life. It was very cathartic. I immediately felt my energy begin moving. It is as if, over the last two weeks, my soul has been caught in a stagnant pool created by the broken branches of each hardship.

Still, I am not quite ready to move on. I have a sense of possibilities… Things unfolding… Things about to change… But they are in the unformed  mist of becoming.

Minnesota's governor and legislature cannot agree on a budget with which to move forward. Lacking a budget, non-essential state services have been suspended. My internal and external environments are mirroring each other. Waiting for a shift…Waiting to move forward.

I am not known for my patience. This is a hard place for me to be. But, as the saying goes, "you can't push the river." I created some guidelines to help me through this:
  1. Keep (privately) venting.
    Part of the reason for the stuckness is that I let the stress buildup occur. It's an easy thing to do when busy-ness is one of the stressors. I need regular recovery practices and – though I have them – I often don't do them. This would be a good time to recommit to healthy living.
  2. Connect with others.
    I went into the office yesterday and realized that one of our jobs during the partial shutdown is to sustain each other. I have a supportive workplace so it's happening naturally. Share the latest shutdown news; describe what non-essential tasks we have found to do; discuss our hopes/plans for After. I need to do this with the more personal issues included in my stress hairball. (Note: If I haven't done #1, #2 may degenerate into a whining fest that does more harm than good.)
  3. Find humor.
    My family has recently taken to recording and watching "Drew Carey's Improv-A-Ganza." It's creative and funny. Silliness is a good activity during times of waiting. It helps put things in perspective.
  4. Keep picking at it… But don't only pick at it.
    My mother always told me not to pick at my scabs, but this is different. If I avoid the situations that are tangling me up, they will remain tangled. On the other hand, if I think obsessively about them, I will remain in the tangle. Instead, I have to tease the mess apart strand by strand, taking breaks when I feel myself getting lost or frustrated.
  5. Have faith; spring will come.
    There is something on the other side of this. Something is being born. As a Minnesotan, you would think I would be better at waiting through the winter for the new birth of spring. Nope. I have to coddle myself through it. I have to be reminded:

    “When spring comes the grass grows by itself.” (Tao Te Ching)

Friday, June 17, 2011

To Live Until I Die

I have the honor of being married to a military brat. The phrase "military brat" is not a description of behavior, but refers to someone who grew up with a parent on active duty in the military. In my case, this has meant learning to move. My husband moved often when he was a child and gets the moving itch every couple years. We have moved (by my rough count) 14 times in 29 years. We have been living in our present home for five years...a career-high. (Prior to my marriage, I had lived in the same house and town since birth.)

It took me a while to get the hang of it. Not the sorting and packing and hauling. That's fairly straightforward. Rather it's the art of holding relationships loosely in my hands and heart. In the early years, I found it difficult to form attachments, since I knew a move was likely right around the corner. With practice, I learned to go against my instincts. It was preferable, I discovered, to fall in love quickly with the people and places around me. Living without holding back served me better.

I use the same skills when it comes to living in this body. It looks likely that I will lose the use of my right (dominant) hand completely within the next five years. (My legs are already paralyzed.) I am meeting with occupational and physical therapists this afternoon to make a plan that will both accommodate and delay losses. I choose to keep loving my body even as it leaves me.

I have been watching, with mixed emotions, the drama being played out in the British press. Sir Terry Pratchett, a prolific and wonderful writer, was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's in 2007. He has become an advocate of assisted suicide, volunteering to be a "test case" and producing a documentary Choosing to Die, which aired on the BBC last Tuesday night.

I am a fan of Pratchett's fantasy novels. I keep many of them on my iPod and listen nearly every night. His way of looking at the world has given me joy. Death is a recurring character in Pratchett's Discworld series.  Death is compassionate, friendly (in an awkward, shy away) and charmingly baffled by human behavior.  I have frequently hoped that my death would be similar to Pratchett's imaginings.

Living with a progressive incurable disease, I understand a bit of the hollow fear Pratchett must be facing as he contemplates his future. MS has cognitive effects as well as physical and I have recently felt the frustration and panic of not being able to understand something I'm sure I would have grasped a few years ago.

Concern about Pratchett's activism has come from disability rights advocates. They, like me (I'm not active enough to say "we" but maybe someday…) fear that making assisted suicide legal and comparatively easy would move insidiously toward encourged suicide.In these days of budget cuts, that's pretty scary stuff. Save yourself suffering – and the government money –by taking a "painless" way out.

I already worry (as do many people with disabilities) about the emotional, practical and financial burden my disability places on my family and those around me.  I have days – at least several times a month – where I think, in frustration "I wish I would just die and get it over with." I mean it at that moment – and sometimes for days at a time – but I don't mean it permanently. Suicide is permanent.

Earlier this year I declared, "I intend to live until I die!" As soon as the words were out of my mouth I realized the deep truth of them. For me, this comes from my belief that I am part of Something Holy and that my role in this universe seems to be one of finding beauty and significance in the small, rejected and disregarded.  I enjoy the polytheistic chaos Pratchett's fantasy world (who can't love Anoia, the minor goddess of Things That Stick in Drawers?), but I suspect that his views do not include being part of a greater pattern.

Having faith does not mean I think things will be easy. I already chafe at the lack of control I have over my life. Somewhere in my reading about these issues, I ran into the idea that we all have a right to die peacefully, painlessly, surrounded by our friends.  That seems like the height of narcissism. Since when is death supposed to be easy and peaceful? In one midwinter bout of depression I took my wheelchair outside, planning to freeze to death. It wasn't long before the cold and discomfort drove me back inside. As biological beings, we are meant to avoid pain and distress.  It's part of what keeps us alive. I expect death to be painful and uncomfortable. I applaud the efforts of modern medicine to dodge pain and discomfort (without the baclofen pump snaking to my spine I would be in much more pain than I am right now), but I expect the actual process of dying to be unpleasant. Life – and death – aren't for sissies.

My brother and his wife have been taking care of her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease, for many years now. It's not easy. Ruby requires constant care and is not who she used to be.  She is, however, a gift… sometimes a joy... as is witnessing their care of her.  I often think to myself, after a visit, that "I just couldn't do it." I'm not referring to the physical care (which is rugged enough) but to the patient reassurances to Ruby of where she is, where her purse is, who these people are and what's going on.  It seems superhuman, but I know it's not.  It is what we do to take care of each other because we love and real life is hard sometimes.  Hard but rich.

After I read about Pratchett's activism, I returned to my iPod with some reservations: would I still be able to enjoy Pratchett's humor and whimsy in light of his recent activities? Of course I can. I understand the fear of loss of control that's behind a wish for assisted suicide. I understand the seductiveness of an easy end.  I believe in freedom of speech and our right to live out loud.

I also believe that life is meant to be lived. We live best when we embrace – falteringly if necessary – the difficult bits. I have been thinking lately about what will constitute a "win" for me in this life. The end piece, I decided, will be to die of natural or accidental causes. Successfully dodging the suicide monster – whether it comes from frustrated exhaustion, loss of faith, or societal encouragement – will be a win. Like most wins, it will not come without training, skills and effort, but it will be worth it.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Book Response: Notes on the Need for Beauty

I started to read Notes on the Need for Beauty: An Intimate Look at Essential Quality by J. Ruth Gendler in a doctor's waiting room. I immediately got a huge grin on my face that lasted until my name was called. Reading this book has been like working my way through a box of Lindor Truffles. Each chapter dissolves into luscious surprises. I plan to return to the book frequently as a source of comfort, inspiration to look more closely at the world around me and as a source of creative experiments.

Even the categories of Gendler's thought—reflected by chapter titles—surprised me. She considers light, mirrors and windows, beauty secrets, faces and masks, rags and threads, bone breath and language, cups bowls and baskets. Her love of words makes the book into music. Simple line drawings throughout speak to our nonverbal selves.

Often, Gendler explores etymology to give us a greater appreciation of the language that we use.

"Mirror, derived from the Latin "to look at, to wonder at" is cousin to admire and smile, mirage and miracle, she points out," and goes on: "mirrors bring us into mythlands, moonlands, mystery lands."
Gendler writes of beauty we can see, but also beauty we can't see.

"Love becomes a cloth two people weave together; threading and stitching connection we weave it and it weaves itself out of us."
If we think about beauty we are also thinking about ugliness. Gendler quotes a therapist who works with disturbed teenagers: "beauty comes from seeing the world without the filter of fear. Ugliness is seeing the world through fear." There is a hunger and loneliness in ugliness, Gendler says, and goes on to ponder how what is regarded as ugly is often strong.

Stories of Gendler's friends, relatives and students add to the wisdom in the book.
"An urban fifth-grader writes:
my heart, the universe
my mind, the stars
my soul, the son
my blood, the moon
my bones, the world
my skin, the ocean
my heart, the universe
and it echoes with the simplicity and authority of an ancient chant."
I am learning to read using the Kindle app on my iPad. I add bookmarks because it is an easier gesture then highlighting text. Returning to the neighborhood of my bookmarks, I find myself rebaptized in the magic of Gendler's prose. What was it, exactly, that I wanted to mark? No matter! Look here and here and here—more good thoughts. I'm gushing, I know, and I suspect there are people who would find this book boring and pointless. It is a book for those who agree:

" attending to beauty and enlarging our sense of beauty, we are able to live with greater appreciation, engagement, wonder, and reverence."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Quality of Life: It's All About Love

I read about how doctors and psychologists are trying to create tools to evaluate and measure Quality of Life in their patients. Reminded of the Disability Rights Movement's slogan, "Nothing about us without us," I set out to create a Quality of Life inventory that could be used for individuals about themselves.

While I used the framework put forward by The Quality of Life Research Unit at the University of Toronto, I soon departed from it. For personal use, measurements and scores are unnecessary.  Instead, it's more of a way of interviewing myself about my life: what's working and what I would like to see change.

When I reached for a simple definition of having quality in my life, I realized it meant answering "yes" (or at least "most of the time") to three questions:
  • Do I love myself?
  • Do I love my world?
  • Do I love my life?
So in the end it's all about love.

The (probably) final product is here as a Microsoft Word document and in PDF. Now I just need to integrate it into my life!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Quality of Life Inventory (first draft)

In our last episode, I got completely completely tangled in my response to the test from the The Quality of Life Research Unit at the University of Toronto. I could tell that what they are doing doesn't fit for me, but I didn't know why.  I suspected there were clues in the Serenity Prayer, but I was puzzled.

Things are clearer now.

Understanding My Frustration

A few investigations and experiences helped me understand where the University of Toronto's tool/model doesn't fit for me.
  • Beyond my control.  Armed with the Serenity Prayer, I went through the Quality of Life model and identified those things which I could change. They fell into the Psychological and Spiritual Being and Leisure and Growth becoming categories–those areas where I scored highest. For most other parts of the list, I have to have significant help from other people. For a few areas I have no control at all. Not coincidentally, those are the areas in which I scored lowest. I was frustrated because I felt chastised for things over which I had no control.
  • Focused on the future. I like the University of Toronto'sdefinition of quality of life: the degree to which a person enjoys the important possibilities of his or her life. I am okay with Being: (who one is) and Belonging (connecting with one's environment). They define Becoming as "achieving personal goals, hopes and aspirations." With that definition,  I will imagine the future, work toward it and evaluate whether I get what I want.  As a person with a progressive incurable illness, I need to stay rooted in Now.
  • Working from the outside. During the last week, I participated in a yoga class, where the teacher guided us to pay attention to our core (straight spine,supported belly, tightened Kegel muscles) before we began each posture. I participated in an adult Christian education class where we were reminded to start with our relationship to God and move from there into outward expressions of our faith. The two traditions agreed: start inward; move outward. I understand that scientists like to move the other direction, but I am practicing the art of living.

Proposing an Alternative

If I designed a tool to help me evaluate my quality of life, how would it look?

I like the University of Toronto's definition and their major categories. I would use more open ended, opinion questions. Unlike the UT, I am not trying to create a standardized tool.

Consider this:

BEING (who one is)

Physical:  What practices do I use in hygiene, exercise grooming and clothing? Are they contributing to my safety and health?
Psychological: What skills and processes do I use to adjust to change? Am I able to function cognitively to keep myself safe? How do I handle my unhelpful thoughts? How do I respond to the ups and downs of my emotions? How do I control my unhelpful impulses? 
Spiritual: What do I value? What do I believe? How do I make decisions about what actions to take?

BELONGING (connections to the environment)

Physical: Do I feel at home where I live (home, work, school, community)? Is there a special place I love and visit?
Social: Who are the important people in my life? Do I feel supported, enjoyed, and/or loved by and loving toward the people around me?
Community: Who are the important groups of people in my life? Do I feel included and part of the whole in the important groups in my life?

BECOMING (what keeps one going and growing)

Practical: What do I consider my basic needs (physical, social, psychological, spiritual) and how do I meet them?
Leisure: What activities in my life promote relaxation and joy?
Growth: How do my values and beliefs nurture me? How do I maintain or improve my knowledge and skills and adapt to change?

Part of 12-step living is to take an inventory. This is my first draft, but it seems this Quality of Life
Inventory might be a good tool for me to use as I move forward in my life.

I'll "take it" and see if I am left in a more resourceful place than I was last week.

Friday, May 13, 2011

That Serenity Thing Again... (Or maybe it's something else?)


When she read the first draft of my thesis, my graduate advisor noticed that I write to figure things out. "In your next draft, " she suggested, "take the final paragraph from each of these sections, put it as the first paragraph and write from there."

Since this is a blog, you are going to get the "figuring things out" pieces too.

How I Returned to the Concept of Serenity
  1. The Notion of Quality of Life
    I recently read an article about Quality of Life and MS research and care that started me on a binge of reading about quality of life.  I took a test from the The Quality of Life Research Unit at the University of Toronto.
    They define quality of life as "the degree to which a person enjoys the important possibilities of his or her life." They go on to divide it into domains (being, belonging and becoming) and subdomains.  "Quality of Life," they explain, "consists of the relative importance or meaning attached to each particular dimension and the extent of the person's enjoyment with respect to each dimension."
    I emerged from the test with a column of scores representing importance, another column representing satisfaction and a series of scores putting me in the positive or negative for each subdomain.
    While I loved reading how the researchers describe and measure Quality of Life, I was disconcerted when my test results showed my quality of life is only "adequate". My lowest scores are in the areas of physical being and belonging.My highest scores in the areas of spiritual being and growth becoming.
  2. The Problem

    "Disconcerted" is a polite way to put it. My quality of life scores were an integral part of a hissy fit that lasted several days.

    See, the problem with any sort of mapping of my life (this is where I am versus this is where I'd like to be) is that I have so little ability to take action to change things. There is very little I can do on my own and while I have a lot of emotional support (for which I thank you) there are few people available to help me (for instance) repair the walls of the living room. (Living space is part of physical belonging.)
 I emerged with a resolution to learn about contentment.


Contentment is being satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.

Contentment is a countercultural idea in my world. Nearly every message I see is about wanting more, wanting better, wanting different.

While I don't want to be part of that culture (and there I am wanting already), I also don't want to be apathetic. I don't want to be unresponsive to injustice or (more selfishly) to my actual needs.

Is there a middle ground between wanting and apathy?


Suddenly, in a blinding flash, I realize I have come around again to the Serenity Prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change
the courage to change the things I can
and the wisdom to know the difference

(Sheesh! Sometimes I work so hard to get to something so simple…)

I can tell I'm not done yet, but I'm onto something. Here are some choices:
  • stay tuned to find out what this is all about, or
  • if you think you know, tell me!




Friday, May 6, 2011

The Magic of Motion

Back in the day
(When I walked with difficulty)
I would watch
Others' steps.

Heel-toe,  heel-toe
The ankle flexes.
The foot arches.
The leg swings.

Each pace is magic.
Each motion leaves a trail of
Fairy dust behind...
Scribbles of amazement.

Now I watch people's hands.
Look how the fingers grasp that small object!
Watch as hand and arm turn the page!
Marvel as small muscles move the pen to make letters!

At once I am filled with breathless wonder
And plunged into a sea of sadness.
My feet no longer walk.
My hands no longer write.

I hold my heart open
By celebrating the magic of motion
And forgiving myself for having to forgive
Those perpetrators unconscious of miracles unfolding.